The role as mother and head of the household presents a unique set of challenges for expat women (as well as those men who step into that role). The work of caring for children, learning how to do the food shopping, and keep the household humming along are undervalued enough, but when the stress of culture shock is thrown in, the pile of work that is never done can easily grow from molehill to mountainous proportions.
Surveys show that expat women find it more difficult to adjust to a foreign culture than men do. Taking a look at why this is will help women find ways to take on their challenges and achieve success in their new lives abroad.
The Trailing Spouse
This is a term refers to situations where one spouse has been stationed overseas, and the other spouse, which may be the husband but more often is the wife, accompanies them.
Being the “trailing spouse” is far more difficult than it sounds. Often times, this person is leaving behind a job or career of their own in order to accompany their spouse abroad, which is a great sacrifice to make. They must contend with a foreign language, familiarize themselves with unknown surroundings, find where and how to do the shopping, adjust to different daily rhythms, etc. – discovering that such mundane tasks such as paying bills can be exceedingly frustrating and time-consuming – and quite often, they are all on their own, without much of a support system. Other expats who have gone through or are going through the same experience will be invaluable aids, but of course, friendships are not automatic occurrences, so these need to be built upon, trust needs to be gained, and connections need to be made – and it can all be very discouraging.
It is not uncommon for such expats to feel lost, alone, overwhelmed by culture shock, under-appreciated, upended, and out of control of their lives. Frustration can eventually turn into depression, alcoholism, marital problems… The challenges that trailing spouses face are very real, and, according to one poll, 65% of employee-sponsored expatriates who fail to complete their assignments cite a dissatisfied spouse as the primary reason. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of these issues that have not been given enough attention in the past. Businesses that are increasingly recognizing how their consideration of family needs will improve worker productivity are moving toward offering more support to trailing spouses, encouraging better preparation in language skills and cultural understanding before relocation and building stronger support networks for family members at their overseas locations.
For those trailing spouses whose move abroad is a more isolated event, being prepared for the possibility that these issues of feeling lost or out of control may arise will give them a head start in finding ways to address them. And one way to address them might be to step back and look at the situation from a wider viewpoint than when one is in the thick of things. Some great advice that I believe to be very helpful comes, I believe, from cognitive therapy: recognize that I may not be able to change a situation, but I can change my reactions to as well as my attitudes toward every situation.
In the previous article on women’s issues, among other topics, I presented the idea that the need for connections with loved ones back home, with people in the community, and with other expat women is a characteristic born of the feminine role as a connective force. Nurturing such connections is an excellent way for women to help themselves avoid feeling overwhelmed by the many stresses of living abroad.
In general, patience and acceptance with oneself as well as others go a long way when trying to cope in a foreign country, while impatience and intolerance are counterproductive to the expat situation.
And a final bit of advice: keeping up a concerted effort to learn about language and culture takes some discipline and effort, but every step toward being able to communicate in a foreign language, every act of engagement with life around oneself, every time one shows that they are trying to the best of their abilities will be reciprocated with a sense of achievement and growing confidence.
For more advice, there are some great internet resources for expat women, with sites such as ExpatWomen.com that are specifically aimed at women’s particular needs as well as many other expat forums and websites addressing a wide variety of expat issues (see listing below for a few).
Speaking of nurturing… Expatriating with children is an enormously challenging task that is more than worth the effort in terms of the unparalleled life experiences that living abroad will provide to them: the manifold benefits of learning a foreign language at a young age; experiencing the world through a different cultural prism; making friends with others who are very different… Mothers are used to putting the needs of others above their own, and helping family members to adjust to life abroad is stressful and exhausting. It is yet another example of how being connected and networking to find solutions and support can be such a big help to women expats.
Although family issues are not exclusive to women, because women are most likely to be the ones who deal with them, I am addressing them here.
Education: Meeting educational needs is high on the list of priorities for expats with children. Matters to take into consideration include such factors as the quality of public schools, children having difficulties adjusting at local schools, the need to have schooling in English rather than in the native language, costs for private schools, and access. Home schooling is an option for those who are able to devote the time to it, and there are many curriculums to choose from. Among the many organizations have sprung up in recent years to take advantage of the learning opportunities presented by the internet, this is a listing of several well-established correspondence programs that have been serving expats and military families for many years:
Health: Encouraging healthy life habits might actually be easier in cultures that are very family oriented. Video game culture is less prominent outside of the United States, and more time spent with family usually means less time in front of the TV or the computer screen – so kids are likely to be more physically active. Fast foods are also less ubiquitous outside of the US, and convenience food products may be few and far between. This of course means that one will need to learn to prepare meals with the foods that are available. This cultural adjustment can be fun culinary adventure for some, but others will find the lack of favorite comfort foods to be difficult.
As for avoiding illnesses, general health conditions vary enormously throughout the world, and parents will need to educate themselves about these conditions so that the proper immunizations or other precautions can be taken and cleanliness standards upheld. Medical practices also vary widely, including prenatal and care during pregnancy, vaccination programs for infants and young children, and emergency care, to name just a few examples.
Cultural adjustment: This is of course something that everyone must deal with, but the mother of the family will be called upon to support family members in ways that only a mother can. She represents a kind of continuity and familiarity in strange and unfamiliar surroundings. She will be turned to for comfort by the sad and lonely. She will need to be an example of strength and confidence for her children to follow in order to vanquish their fears and insecurities. These roles that all mothers take on will be magnified by the expat family experience, so those all-important ways for her to feel connected will help her to find the inner strength to help others as well as herself.
As exciting as expatriation is, it is also stressful and will often test marriages and relationships. In some instances, some family members will be enthralled with life abroad, while others cannot shake their homesickness, feelings of alienation, or other incurable discomforts with the situation. Many families are able to work through their problems by repatriating or perhaps getting professional counseling. But sometimes things just don’t work out. Those who find themselves in this unenviable situation would be advised to consult an international divorce lawyer. In fact, in this recent EFAM article about dealing with divorce and custody of children in an expat relationship, the author advises couples who are planning to move abroad with children and pregnant women who are unsure about remaining abroad to consider the very serious legal complications that are involved, should the situation of separation arise.
Now that this unpleasant topic has been addressed, there is the more uplifting topic of being an expatriate single mother to touch on. It is uplifting because any woman who has the fortitude to live in a foreign country as a single mother has my respect. These women must know how to network, how to take care of themselves and their children, how to get things done – and they have to have some nerve!
About the author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she co-edits and writes for Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.